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Japanese Surprised Language Barrier Is Falling

December 22, 1988|DENNIS NORMILE | Christian Science Monitor

TOKYO — After 16 years in Japan, American executive David D. Baskerville speaks the language so naturally that Japanese phrases creep into his English conversation. For the Japanese, however, there is still something unnatural about Japanese-speaking foreigners. "The reaction of bikkuri (surprise) is always there," Baskerville says. "In America, the reaction (to foreigners) is, 'Why don't you speak English?' In Japan, it's the opposite: 'Why in the world do you speak Japanese?' "

Japan's growing economic and political might has brought with it a surge of interest in the language and culture. Long accustomed to scaling the language barrier to deal with the rest of the world, Japanese are surprised that so many foreigners are trying to come over that barrier to them. Moreover, the growing numbers of foreigners mastering the language are challenging some cherished beliefs the Japanese have about themselves.

A 1984 Japanese government survey found more than 600,000 people worldwide enrolled in Japanese language courses. Current estimates put the number in excess of 1 million. If people studying on their own or following Japanese language courses on radio and television are included, more than 5 million people are thought to be studying the language.

Just how quickly this has happened is shown by the number of people taking a Japanese language proficiency test given worldwide by the Assn. for International Education and the Japan Foundation, organizations affiliated with Japan's Ministry of Education. Five years ago, the test attracted 7,000 takers. When it is given this month, about 29,000 people are expected to take the test.

"Until 10 years ago there were very few people who were interested in Japan or the Japanese language or economy," says Manabu Horie, a spokesman for the Assn. for International Education. Those interested in the language were often held back by a lack of learning materials and teachers, he says. The situation has improved, but the Ministry of Education foresees 4 million students taking Japanese courses throughout the world by 1996, resulting in a serious shortage of qualified teachers.

To meet the growing needs, the ministry is promoting the development of teaching methods and materials. It also sponsors training seminars for foreign teachers of Japanese.

It is all part of Japan's "internationalization"--the efforts of Japanese to expand their view of the world, and the world's view of Japan.

Baskerville, vice president of an American-German joint venture, finds speaking the language a definite advantage in business. In Japan, the most important discussions take place in informal settings, he says. That atmosphere is lost if a translator is involved.

Business aside, he says life would be much more confined if he were unable to strike up casual conversations with the people he meets.

But whether he is speaking to academics or to shopkeepers, "the second or third question is, 'How come you speak Japanese?' " he says. "They aren't that used to people speaking Japanese."

Horie says, "Even today, some people believe that Japanese is one of the most difficult languages in the world. But it is a misunderstanding."

The belief continues despite the evidence. Some 25,000 foreign students are studying at Japanese universities. Foreign businessmen can be spotted on the morning trains reading Japanese newspapers, just like the Japanese "salarymen" sitting next to them. Foreigners write columns for Japanese magazines. Virtually every quiz show on Japanese TV has foreign panelists trading quips with their Japanese colleagues.

But Japanese-speaking foreigners are still few enough that they stand out.

"They are still referred to as hen na gaijin (strange foreigners)," says Masahiko Ishizuka, editor of the Japan Economic Journal. He says that belief in the difficulty of surmounting the language barrier is a Japanese myth about themselves.

"This is the case not only with language, but our way of living, our way of thinking," Ishizuka says. "We have a strong sense of being isolated, unique. This is a lingering perception from past days."

Baskerville finds that even with the depth of his experience in the country, he still gets lectured on how things are done in Japan. He says that while every country thinks of itself as unique, "the attitude of many Japanese is that 'we are unique in a unique way.' "

Ishizuka sees internationalization as a conscious effort on the part of Japanese to overcome such myths. He thinks the growing numbers of foreigners operating within Japanese society will eventually affect the way Japanese see themselves.

"We'll not be able to remain forever locked in the notion that we are a special people, difficult for outsiders to understand," he says.

Behind the drive to internationalize is Japan's hope of smoothing the friction in its relations with other countries. While increased knowledge on both sides is seen as beneficial, Ishizuka warns that this alone is not going to resolve what are essentially economic disputes.

"Japanese have an illusion that as long as we explain ourselves, as long as we pursue 'mutual understanding,' these conflicts will disappear," he says. "This is an illusion."

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